When Princeton University administrators announced late last week the suspension of the Woodrow Wilson School Junior Summer Institute – an academic summer program exclusively for underrepresented minority students studying public policy – they raised concerns of a possible lawsuit. The University of Michigan’s two lawsuits regarding the use of race in admissions, expected to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court April 1, have opened the possibility for more lawsuits to attack the procedures universities use to attain diversity.
This week, legal worries spread to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where administrators announced that two summer math and science programs – originally reserved for underrepresented minorities – will be open to all, starting this summer.
Both programs are seven weeks long and are intended for incoming freshmen who might need more orientation to the university before embarking on their first year of college.
When the Center for Equal Opportunity, a watchdog firm that opposes race-conscious university policies, first told MIT two years ago that it would investigate the programs, administrators decided not to back down. But the current political climate caused the school to change its mind.
“We basically decided – reluctantly that in the current legal environmen – they cannot be defended,” MIT Undergraduate Education Dean Robert Redwine said, adding that although the revamped programs hope to benefit all students, attracting underrepresented minorities might become more challenging.
CEO General Counsel Roger Clegg said the mother of an MIT freshman originally contacted CEO because she was upset that her son was ineligible for one of the programs because he was not a minority.
“We contacted the school and pointed out that the program was inconsistent with the civil rights laws and that the program should be opened to all students without regard to race or ethnicity,” Clegg said.
Clegg said CEO continues to watch schools all over the country for programs that may discriminate by race. He added that the group sent five letters out to universities yesterday to warn them about various programs that might be illegal.
“We’re not opposed to programs that help disadvantaged students, but we don’t think that disadvantaged and advantaged should be defined in terms of race,” Clegg said.
Redwine said that, because the court’s decision will come down later this spring, the stakes are high for many universities. Although he said CEO has a right to pursue its agenda, he said he feels that not many students who will soon benefit from the program are truly disadvantaged.
But several school administrators said similar concerns about lawsuits against their own institutions are minimal. At Brown University, a school where blacks and Hispanics each make up 7 percent of the student body, General Counsel Beverly Ledbetter said she does not expect any changes in Brown’s commitment to minority programs.
“Brown has not removed or eliminated any of (its) programs in response to any sort of lawsuit,” Ledbetter said.
Ledbetter declined to comment further on the decisions or on other multicultural initiatives offered by Brown. Brown President Ruth Simmons could not be reached for comment.
At Northwestern University, Hispanics and blacks make up 5.8 and 5.1 percent, respectively, of this year’s freshman class.
Mary Desler, associate vice president of student affairs, said Northwestern offers numerous programs that are not exclusive to minorities but still attract them. She was unaware of the possibilities of these programs being eliminated. She said Northwestern’s legal staff is exploring potential challenges to the programs.
The University of California system, on the other hand, is not concerned with the lawsuits, mainly because they are bound to Proposition 209 – a 1996 referendum passed by California voters banning the use of affirmative action programs, including admissions policies.
“It won’t affect the University of California,” spokesman Hanan Eisenman said.
Eisenman added that the University of California offers numerous outreach programs for high school students to help them prepare for college, but that these programs do not target underrepresented minorities.
“They are based on bringing educational opportunities to schools that have traditionally sent few students to (the University of California),” Eisenman said.